Friday, December 25, 2015

Puffballs: Giants Of The Mushroom World

“Never eat anything bigger than your head.” I don’t know if cartoonist Bernard Kliban came up with that or if it’s a nugget of old folk wisdom. Certainly you should not eat anything that big without at least chewing it first.

But if you like mushrooms, you can find wild ones that are in fact much larger than your head.

The giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea, appears in late summer and early fall in pastures, lawns and deciduous forests. These brilliant white globes are the fruiting bodies of the actual fungus, which is out of sight below ground. They seem to magically appear overnight, and are typically six to twenty inches in diameter. In rare instances they have reached nearly five feet across, bigger than the heads of all but the most conceited individuals.

To be sure, fresh puffballs are inflated and puffy, but their name comes from what happens once they mature and dry out. In that condition, a smoke-like stream of brown spores will jet from the top of a dry puffball any time it is disturbed. A puffball may produce as many as 7,000,000,000,000 (I think that’s seven bazillion) spores, so it can puff seemingly forever. Back in “the day” kids used to think it was a riot to step on these. More than likely, there’s now a cell phone app that is more convenient, and hypoallergenic.

Statistically speaking, most wild mushrooms are edible. A few, though, cause irreversible liver failure; hence it is a drag to mess up. In addition to these deadly Amanita species there are other types which cause gastric discomfort (some spectacularly), all the more reason to be careful. I know a couple of self-taught mushroom hunters with decades of experience who in rare cases still make a mistake. Even morels and chanterelles, considered easy to find, have dangerous look-alike species. Fortunately for the well-being of the public I readily admit mushroom identification is not one of my strong suits, and I’m usually reluctant to make a positive ID on a specimen.

One of the few exceptions is the easily recognized giant puffball. I suppose a determined soul might be able to get it wrong, but it would take some real talent at screwing up. If you follow a few simple rules it is nearly impossible to mistake a giant puffball for anything else:

Small is bad. Remember where “giant” is part of its name? The problem is, a toxic Amanita mushroom when newly-emerging, before its cap unfolds, can resemble an undersized puffball. So only select ones six inches in diameter or bigger.

Perhaps the only place where white is best is where puffballs, tennis attire and office paper are concerned. Cut open your giant puffball. If its flesh is white as the driven, pre-Industrial Age snow, it’s good. Slight yellowing indicates it has become too mature. Eating it at this stage is not dangerous but it won’t taste as good and might give you a belly ache.

“Homogenous is next to Godliness,” as they say. Actually no one says that, but when you slice a puffball its interior should look uniform. Any hint of an outline of a stem, gills or still-folded cap means it’s dangerous. Back away slowly in case it tries any sudden moves.

However, if your find is large, and white with no “shadow” or outline inside, it is almost certainly the real deal. If it’s your first time as a wild mycophage, though, check with someone (preferably one with knowledge in this area) before serving it for supper.

No one claims puffballs are as delectable as a morel, but I think they are on par with a grocery-store mushroom. They can be cut into strips and sautéed just like commercial mushrooms. Puffballs can also be sliced and frozen for later, which is great in light of that head-size restriction mentioned earlier.

My father used to relate how, when he was little, his mother pan-fried large thin puffball slices and served them with maple syrup like pancakes. “Heavenly,” was how he described them. One day he finally tried to recreate this delicacy. We both agreed that puffballs with maple syrup fell a few steps short of Nirvana. Much better in sauce or a stir-fry, I think.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


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